News / USA

NYC Landmark Celebrates Centenary

Carolyn Weaver
Grand Central Terminal - usually called Grand Central Station - is 100 years old this month, a living symbol of New York City. A year-long celebration is planned for the Beaux-Arts landmark - "beloved, glowing, indispensable," as a new book describes it - that is also one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations.

Visitors marveled at the ornate limestone building when Grand Central opened on February 2, 1913. They still do. It is the largest train station in the world, by the number of platforms: 44, serving 67 tracks, all underground. About 750,000 people pass through its halls each day, whether to shop, sightsee, or catch a subway or commuter train.

The immense main concourse, with its arched windows, jewel-like four-sided clock and old-fashioned ticket-seller windows has appeared in many movies, as well, from the 1950s thriller North by Northwest, to a scene in the 1995 The Fisher King, where weary commuters crossing the marble floor are briefly transformed into waltzing couples.

"Grand Central is the kind of temple, cathedral that testifies to the magnificence of rail transportation, the kind that God would have built if he’d had the money," says Dan Brucker, a transit authority docent who has worked at the terminal for three decades. "But He didn’t. The Vanderbilts did," he adds, referring to the family whose fortune, derived from sea and rail transportation, built the station.

Train conductors talk to each other shortly before the first Metro North commuter train to leave Grand Central Station in New York, October 31, 2012.
Train conductors talk to each other shortly before the first Metro North commuter train to leave Grand Central Station in New York, October 31, 2012.
Stars shine down on commuters

"Look at how beautiful it is," he says. "This is the beginning of 20th-century architecture.  And as people come through this terminal, they don’t even realize that the magnificent celestial ceiling above them, the very roof of heaven, is exactly wrong, is exactly opposite: It’s a mirror image."

It is true: the turquoise October sky painted on Grand Central’s cylindrical ceiling, with pinpricks of light for stars, reverses the Zodiac, whether through the painter’s error or choice. "Some suggest the stars are the firmament as God would see the heavens from His or Her side of the firmament, and I sort of like that version," says urban historian Justin Ferate, who has been giving tours of Grand Central for 30 years.

Ferate says the station was designed to make travel pleasurable: a journey, not a slog. "The amazing thing about Grand Central is that it processes many, many more people than most airports in the world, in a way that’s gracious, and friendly," he says. "Looking up at the starry sky of Grand Central, you know you’re a traveler, you’re going off on a great adventure, you’re going to follow your stars and find your dream. You’re also going to find your train where it’s supposed to be."

Each architectural element was sized with human perception and anatomy in mind, Ferate adds, from the steps to the blocks in the Tennessee marble floors. He demonstrates by walking backwards down the concourse steps, taking off on a looping run through the crowd, and then sitting down on the floor.

"One of the amazing things about why people don’t run into each other in Grand Central is something very simple," he says. "Each block of stone in Grand Central is the length of your leg. Each block of stone is a different color, so it’s a checkerboard, based on you. So, when you run across the floor, you subliminally know exactly where everyone is standing."

A woman pulls her luggage at Grand Central Station while Hurricane Sandy approaches New York, October 28, 2012.
A woman pulls her luggage at Grand Central Station while Hurricane Sandy approaches New York, October 28, 2012.
History and mystery

The terminal is full of secrets and rooms that few people ever see. Deep underground, on a disused track that runs a few blocks to a space beneath the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, sits a rusting railway car. It was used by former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hid the fact of his paralysis from public view by transferring directly from the train to a private automobile on his visits to New York.  

In the Grand Central Oyster Bar, a restaurant that’s been part of the terminal from the beginning, an acoustical anomaly means that private conversations don’t always remain private: the tiled ceiling makes even whispers at some tables audible on the other side of the room. The whispering gallery, which has the same tiled ceiling, is a favorite stage for marriage proposals, according to Ferate.

Little-remembered now is that Grand Central Terminal was the target of a Nazi plot during WWII: Two German agents were dispatched to sabotage the giant rotary convertors in a deep subbasement that supplied electrical current for the railways. The two were found out and arrested before they reached New York.  In 1976, a group of Croatian nationalists planted a bomb in a locker at the station, hijacked a plane, and issued a set of demands.  The New York Police Department’s attempt to disarm the bomb according to their instructions went awry, however.  Thirty people were wounded and an NYPD bomb squad member killed when the bomb exploded.

The clock on the south facing side of New York's Grand Central Terminal strikes noon March 29, 2012.
The clock on the south facing side of New York's Grand Central Terminal strikes noon March 29, 2012.
View to impress

One of Justin Ferate’s favorite aspects of Grand Central is its exterior: not only the statue of the Roman god Mercury standing atop the Tiffany clock on the facade - flanked by statues of Minerva and Hercules - but the raised road and tunnel that shunt traffic around the terminal. "As you go through the tunnel, you’ll see daylight at the end of the tunnel and then you’ll rise high above the city," he explains, "And you’ll have buildings on the right and left that are holding you, just like a roller coaster ride at Coney Island!"

Grand Central narrowly escaped destruction when plans for topping it with an office tower were unveiled in 1968. The 10-year battle to save the terminal helped create the modern architectural preservation movement around the U.S. Now, no one would think of tampering with its classic beauty. In fact, in 2019, Grand Central will become even larger, adding a new subterranean station serving the Long Island Railroad, and cutting the travel times of thousands of commuters. The escalator ride down to what Dan Brucker says will be the deepest station on earth will take two and a half minutes.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs